What's it to ya?

Jan. 6, 2010
In this edition of In the Trenches, Acme's harassment policy comes front and center.

Back in 1956, the founder, Bo Acme, viewed his company as something more than merely a place to kill eight hours each day. He wanted employees to be proud to work under the Acme banner and to be incredibly productive. To achieve this end, perhaps as a sort of bribe, Acme offered flex time, good medical benefits and other perks to every employee, not just those ensconced on Mahogany Row.

Mr. Acme also established his company as a “faith-friendly” organization. Bo attributed the success of his now multi-state empire to that single characteristic. The original company dress code, the employee code of ethics, the general anti-harassment policy, the list of Web sites the IT department now blocks are, for the most part, consistent with Ol’ Man Acme’s vision for the company that bears his name. And Ivana Hoyden fit the mold nicely. A private, in-the-closet kind of person who kept a low profile, Ivana was religious, as were most of Acme’s employees. But the business world continued to evolve. After Bo died, the company exhibited a slow, steady drift toward secularism, a fact that some resented.

An example is Tess LaCoille, an evangelical supervisor, who led the department where Ivana worked. Tess openly criticized the Lesbian lifestyle that Ivana practiced. Tess believed that this lifestyle was founded on personal choice, not something determined by a person’s genetic makeup.

To help bring Ivana back to the “straight and narrow,” Tess instituted weekly “coaching sessions” with Ivana. During these job-related meetings, ostensibly to improve Ivana’s performance, Tess repeatedly asked Ivana to attend church services with her. Tess prayed with and for Ivana, sometimes during the work day. Also, she bought Ivana a ticket to attend a woman-only religious conference that Tess had organized.


Even though Ivana hated the fact that Tess confronted her so often about her sexual preferences, Ivana never made a big deal of it. It was her cross to bear, so to speak. But, when Tess’s lifestyle campaign began being waged several times a week, Ivana exercised her best option in a large organization in which a mobile workforce was the norm. She arranged for a routine transfer to another Acme facility, this one in a more tolerant part of the country. The new job also was a promotion.

Ivana waited until the very end of her exit interview before she fired a parting shot. She told the HR manager the details of Tess’s relentless efforts to convince Ivana to give up a significant part of her identity and self-image. Ivana said that having to work with Tess every day made the job situation extremely uncomfortable, because one never knew when Tess would start the harangue again. When asked why she never told Tess to knock it off or why she never contacted HR about the problem, Ivana replied that “Tess is my boss and I need the job.”

After Ivana left for her new position, the HR manager met with the vice-president and the corporate counsel to discuss Tess’s apparent violations of the harassment policy. They agreed that if Tess admitted the accusations that Ivana alleged on her last day, termination would be appropriate.

The following week, at a meeting with the HR manager and the vice-president, Tess freely confirmed the events and conversations that Ivana reported. At the conclusion of that meeting, the vice-president told Tess that her actions were a gross violation of corporate policy and then terminated her, effective immediately.

Tess filed a complaint with the EEOC on her own discrimination claims.

How could this situation have been avoided? Should every employer have a functional, enforced harassment policy? Should prayer be permitted in the workplace? Did Ivana handle this in the best way? Should she have raised objections sooner? Should someone be terminated for harassment even if the victim never voices a complaint? Should supervisors have an interest in the private lives of their subordinates?

Special thanks to Charlie at Burrell Scientific.

An academician says:

Interestingly enough, I had a former student who was a Lesbian and worked for an evangelical company. In fact, the company had a large statue of Jesus washing the feet of one of his disciples in their lobby, together with a sign that stated the company’s purpose in business and life was to serve the Lord. So, it was clear to all as to where management stood. However, the question of her sexual preference was never raised (although it was known). Moreover, she was never asked to engage in any religious activities. She loved working at the company and the company was frequently cited as one of the best places to work in the area.

It appears that Acme didn’t follow the same approach as my student’s company. A company certainly has the right to declare its religious nature, and also to sponsor religious activities, such as prayer meetings. However, none of this can be any part of the hiring, or promotion, or assignment, or firing process. Nor can a supervisor attempt to convert an employee to the supervisor’s religious viewpoints. Thus, in my opinion, Tess’ behavior was harassment and she certainly produced a hostile work environment.

There are a couple of ways that this could have been avoided. The first is through training of supervisors (and others). The fact that Acme is openly religiously oriented should have raised a few red flags in Human Resources, and supervisors and employees should be briefed as to what one can and can’t do in such an organization. Clearly, Tess’ behavior would have been something the briefing would have warned people not to do.

Secondly, Ivana should have told Tess that her behavior was unwanted and inappropriate and, if it continued, HR would hear about it. If Ivana felt too threatened to do so, I’m sure plenty of other people who knew about it could have stepped forward.

Finally, Acme was within its rights and responsibilities to investigate and adjudicate Ivana’s complaint. To do otherwise would have been irresponsible and probably illegal.

Professor Homer H. Johnson, Ph.D.
Loyola University Chicago
(312) 915-6682
[email protected]

An attorney says:

And so, what exactly is Tess suing for? What kind of discrimination is she alleging? Unless she can show that Acme treated another employee who engaged in harassment and who happens to not be in some legally protected group, of which Tess is a member, more favorably, Tess is not going to get past the courthouse door.

“Discrimination” is an oft-flaunted word. If one decides to eat a hamburger for lunch instead of a tuna sandwich, one has “discriminated” against tuna — but this doesn’t meet the legal definition of discrimination. The federal discrimination laws protect employees from discrimination on the basis of race, color, gender, disability, age, religion and national origin. For Tess to have a viable discrimination claim, she should have to show, for example, that Acme treated someone who wasn’t of her race or color or who was male or not of her religion or national origin more favorably when that person engaged in an act of harassment.

Acme acted just as it should have acted with respect to Tess. She engaged in harassment toward Ivana, both because of Ivana’s sexual preference and her religious beliefs. Tess’ actions created a hostile work environment for Ivana who became extremely uncomfortable never knowing when Tess would start her daily harangue. And praying with her at work, for heaven’s sake? Most people would be uncomfortable under these working conditions.

Tess engaged in unlawful harassment that surely violated Acme’s harassment policy. She should have been fired, and she was. Hurray for Acme.

Julie Badel, partner
Epstein Becker & Green, P.C.
(312) 499-1418
[email protected]

A plant engineer says:

This situation could have been avoided if Ivana would have expressed her feelings about Tess's invitations sooner. From what we understand about this situation, Ivana never asked Tess, in any way, to back off. Tess believed she was doing Ivana a great service by trying to reach out to her. If Ivana felt differently about Tess's actions, she should have spoken up earlier. The time to raise objections to workplace interactions is when the interaction is taking place, or right after, not during an exit interview. If Ivana was truly concerned for her job as a reason not to speak up sooner, then she had no understanding of the company's harassment policy or faith the company would act upon it.

I believe every company should have a functional, enforced harassment policy. The only way the policy gets enforced is when someone steps forward and reports some type of harassment. That didn’t happen here and shame on Acme for terminating Tess. Ivana should be the one reprimanded. If she believed she was being harassed and didn’t report it, that’s like not following proper safety procedures. Procedures and policies work only when they’re followed. When employees don’t follow proper procedure, they normally receive a write-up that helps them understand how important proper procedures are to the long-term health of the employee and the company.

The question in the workplace isn’t whether prayer should be permitted, for you can’t stop it. The question, rather, is whether one employee can force another to participate in prayer. The answer is no, you shouldn’t try to force someone to pray in the workplace or anywhere else. Forced prayer really isn’t genuine prayer.

Jeffrey L. Strasser
Bacova Guild
(540) 863-2656
[email protected]

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